Third in a series on preaching

Third in a series on preaching

WARNING: This is a post primarily for preachers. Readers who are not preachers most likely shall be bored beyond belief, because this is “shop-talk” about the art and craft of preaching.

A seasoned mechanic knows the “how,” the nuts-and-bolts of machines. There are many principles and rules determining how a motor works. The same is true of preaching and preachers. David Buttrick’s Homiletic: Moves And Structures endeavours to make preachers more conscious of the “how to” principles and rules of preaching and sermons. Here is more advice from Professor Buttrick on what to avoid in preaching and sermons and how to prepare and deliver sermons. If you agree with Buttrick and practice all or most of his advice, bless you! If not, then argue with him, test his advice, learn and grow in your preaching, and bless you too!

Avoid conceptual words, vague general terms like: goals, relationships, situations, desires, and the like. Instead use visual images or analogy. Instead of: In our homes, in daily life, we do not take time for God or prayer. Use language like this: At home, around a kitchen table, or when it’s tuck-in-time for bed, we don’t bow our heads much, do we?

Instead of flat verbs like look, see, or realize, revise, removed, omitting, spoke, use colour verbs having visual character like: peer, scan, peek, stare, study, puzzle, probe, gaze, take in, grasp, catch on, make out, savvy, penetrate, set out to, edit, scrapping, scratched, fit to scribble, frame, hand out, and the like. Use adjectives very sparingly, they only snuff out comprehension. Verbs & nouns are strong; adverbs have some power; but, orally, adjectives are weak words. Use pronouns like: you, we, us rather than human beings, or people. Use present tense and active voice most of the time, use passive voice when we are not concerned with agency or wish to imply indirect agency. Use mostly short, clear sentences, although mixing short with longer sentences works and is normal in ordinary speech.





Sermon 3 Epiphany Yr B

3 Epiphany Yr B, 25/01/2008

Ps 62:5-12

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta


“Silent waiting for God”


In a “Dennis The Menace” comic strip a few years ago, Dennis is with his dog, Ruff, beside him. They are also walking with Margaret. Dennis is happily pulling a red wagon, while Margaret, clinging to her doll, is chattering to the wind.

   In the second panel, Dennis gives Ruff a quick, side view glance while Margaret’s yakking goes on and on. However, she is now speaking right in Dennis’ ear.

   In scene three, Margaret is wildly pelting Dennis with her doll, raising her voice and saying, “Dennis, you’re not listening to me when I’m speaking to you.”

   The final panel has Dennis turning towards Margaret and answering, “Margaret, I’m listening to you, it’s just that I’m not paying any attention!”

   Silence. We too struggle with silence. I think this is a very real issue for many people today in our advanced world. We, like Dennis have probably had similar experiences, wherein we were not speaking, we may have listened to someone talking, however we failed to pay attention. Why? Because our minds were preoccupied with other things, they were in another world, another place. We may have been present in body, while our minds were somewhere else. We failed miserably, like Dennis in our listening, even though we may have been silent.

   We also most likely have felt like Margaret in the cartoon. We are speaking with someone else, sharing our thoughts with them. However, we can see from their body language, particularly their face, that far-away look, as if they were transported to another world. We know that our words are not really being heard. It’s as if we were talking to a wall rather than a human being. Even though the person we’re addressing is silent, they, like Dennis in the cartoon are not paying attention.

   This can be a most frustrating thing for us, because all of us need to be heard. Sometimes, we feel like Margaret that we’re not being taken seriously, or people don’t really care, because they don’t really listen with care to what we say. Or, as we also have likely experienced, they were not paying attention to what we said, so they misunderstood the intention of our words. Communication can be and often is a challenge isn’t it?!

   As I said earlier, I think it is especially difficult for most of us in our day and age to be silent, to wait, to watch, to pay attention, to engage in careful, deep listening. That is a challenge for us. Why? Well, because our world today is so full of noise and activities. Science and technology speeds up our lives to such a fast pace that it has become normal to fill our lives with impatience and noise. In fact, some people struggle so much with stillness and silence that it is next to impossible for them to be still or silent for long. Even when people are alone, they often have the T.V. or radio or stereo blaring away to fill up their space. Complete silence for them is anathema, or an oxymoron. Silence is just too threatening; they don’t know what to do, or how to handle it.

   Even if people do appreciate silence and try to listen with care, it is still more of a challenge today, I think, than it was centuries ago. Why? Because if one lives in a large city, which most people in the world do, then there is the constant struggle with noise pollution. Airplanes fly overhead. Cars and trucks speed along the major roadways with horns beeping and engines roaring. Even people chattering in buildings or on public transportation systems or in shopping malls fill our lives with noise.

   Over against all of the noise and fast pace of life today, Psalm sixty-two gives us a different, refreshing view of life. King David writes: “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is in him.” Silence. Silent waiting. Silent waiting for God. The psalmist is able to wait for God alone in silence because God is the Source of his hope. He is confident in God. He trusts in God. He relies in and depends on God for life and everything in life.

   Waiting for God in silence reassures the psalmist of who God is and what he does. God, the psalmist discovers in silence is: “my rock, my salvation, my fortress, my refuge. In other words, God is the psalmist’s Source of strength, safety and protection. God is the psalmist’s true security. God is the psalmist’s Source of health and offers him an inviting spacious place in which to live. All of these images of God bring the psalmist a deep sense of comfort and confidence. It is thanks to God that King David was delivered from his enemies. Thanks to God, he was given honour among his people as Israel’s ideal king. Honour here in the biblical sense is a combination of being blessed by God with wisdom, wealth, property and valour. When one is honoured one is valued and respected in the community. All of this is a gift from God.

   In the history of Israel and the Church, countless people of faith have also found God to be their rock, salvation, fortress and refuge too, just like King David. When they waited on God alone in silence, they too learned more clearly who God truly is and what he does.

   Think, for example, of the prophet Elijah. Remember that he ran away for a time in the wilderness to hide for fear of his life. Then, to his surprise, God revealed himself in the sound of sheer silence. It was in the sound of sheer silence that God encouraged Elijah and gifted him with the grace and every blessing that he needed to go back to his people and serve God as a prophet. In the sound of sheer silence, Elijah re-discovered the confidence and security that he needed to fulfill his calling as a prophet.

   In the New Testament, we think of Jesus himself as our perfect example of what it means to wait for God alone in silence. The gospels tell us that Jesus would often get up early in the morning to go to a quiet place so that he could spend time with his heavenly Father in silent prayer and meditation. These silent times of retreat for Jesus strengthened him for his public ministry.

   In recent times, here is what Mother Teresa once said about the importance for us today to wait on God alone in silence: “We need to find God, and He cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature–trees, flowers, grass–grow in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence. Is not our mission to give God to others through the Word? Not a dead God, but a living, loving God. The more we receive in silent prayer, the more we can give in our active life. We need silence to be able to touch souls. The essential thing is not what we say, but what God says to us and through us. All our words will be useless unless they come from within–words which do not give the light of Christ increase the darkness.”1

   To Mother Teresa’s words of wisdom I say “AMEN!” And, I encourage each one of you to take some time each day to turn to God alone and wait, pray, listen in silence. I am confident that he will speak to you through the silence if you are truly listening with care, just as he has done and continues to do so for countless people throughout the ages, and right up to the present day. Find a quiet place. If you have noisy surroundings, try using ear plugs to shut out the noise. The key too is to find the time when you are most alert–for some that will be the morning, for others it will be afternoon or evening. When you are most alert, you shall likely be the most receptive in concentrating on listening with care. The other bit of advice I offer you is to be in a comfortable position, sit on the most comfortable chair so that you can relax your body as you pray and meditate in silence. All of these things have proven helpful for many people. I hope they will be for you too.  

   Silence can be as the old saying goes, “golden.” It can reveal to us many treasures from our LORD of priceless worth. Most importantly, silence can strengthen our relationship and draw us ever closer to Jesus who is and wants to be our closest Friend and Brother as well as our God and Saviour. Amen.


1 Unfortunately, I’ve lost the source of this quotation attributed to Mother Teresa.          



Second in a series on preaching

Second in a series on preaching

WARNING: This is a post primarily for preachers. Readers who are not preachers most likely shall be bored beyond belief, because this is “shop-talk” about the art and craft of preaching.


Continuing with David Buttrick’s Homiletic: Moves and Structures, here are a few more words of advice. If I had to sum up what Professor Buttrick advises below in one sentence I would say: Keep your sermons short and simple or KISS. The advice to keep them short may be debatable however—especially among preachers who do not celebrate Holy Communion on a regular basis. Moreover, maybe a sermon needs to be longer, not shorter to increase the listeners’ opportunity to actually retain 35 percent of it. J I do wonder about the source(s) of Buttrick’s research, which he fails to cite. I also wonder how researchers do know what they say they know regarding their research—i.e. what methods do they employ and are they reliable? That said, his advice in using the 5,000 word vocabulary rather than the erudite 12,000 word one does have wisdom. Preaching is about communicating the Gospel clearly in order that folks listening really do hear and/or encounter Christ in the preached word.

Research indicates that in a reasonably good sermon, only about 35 percent of the language will be functional; the rest will have suffered instant erasure, dropping out of consciousness almost as soon as it is spoken. While such deletions are usually the result of weak starts and finishes to moves or, possibly, a lack of point-of-view control, some erasures are caused by regrettable language patterns. So, if we are to achieve, at minimum, a 60 percent retention of language, we will have to sidestep some common pitfalls. Also, it is thought that the graduate from seminary has about a 12,000 word vocabulary. Whereas an average congregational member will have a vocabulary of about 7,500 words. However for oral speaking you can reduce the common shared vocabulary of a congregation to about 5,000 words. The language of preaching should be the vocabulary of everyday conversation. Remember, the vocabulary of the New Testament’s koine Greek is not much more than 5,000 words. Unless we are eager to parade erudition, the limited vocabulary of preaching need not disturb us. Moreover, when we speak of important moments, the profound if often troubling moments in our lives, we invariably revert to simple words—i.e. the words we learned in the first 5 years of our lives. Slang words and phrases, if used in shared, everyday language can be used in sermons.

 To be continued…  










Sermon 2 Epiphany Yr B

2 Epiphany Yr B, 18/01/2009

Ps 139:1-6, 13-18

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta


“The wonder of being known by God”


God knows all things. In theological language, this refers to God’s omniscience. Think of how great God’s knowledge is, especially in light of human knowledge. For example, in most fields of knowledge today, the information is mind-boggling, and even experts struggle to keep up with the newest knowledge. Yet God knows all things in every single field of knowledge. Unlike we humans, God knows things in totality, whereas even the best human minds know imperfectly, and in part. How great God is!

In verses thirteen to eighteen of Psalm 139, the psalmist worships God with reverential wonder, awe, amazement, astonishment, by meditating on the miracle of his own creation, birth and life. The all-knowing God determined the psalmist’s personality and his life’s destiny even before he was born into the world. The psalmist, overwhelmed with God’s creative power, knowledge and love, says: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Even though he didn’t live with a scientific worldview of human beings; he worships God in awe and wonder of it all. With our scientific information of the human being, I think we can actually perhaps even be in greater awe and wonder at the gift of life, and how God creates each of us. Consider for a moment, the following scientific information as described by Dr. John Medina, a genetic engineer at the University of Washington, then ask yourself: Did this all happen by accident? Can human existence be totally explained scientifically? Or is God the true Creator of human beings? Listen to the words of Dr. Medina:

The average human heart pumps over one thousand gallons a day, over 55 million gallons in a lifetime. This is enough to fill 13 upper tankers. It never sleeps, beating 2.5 billion times in a lifetime.

The lungs contain one thousand miles of capillaries. The process of exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide is so complicated that “it is more difficult to exchange O2, for CO2 than for a man shot out of a cannon to carve the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin as he passes by.”

DNA contains about two thousand genes per chromosome—1.8 meters of DNA are folded into each cell nucleus. A nucleus is six microns long. This is like putting 30 miles of fishing line into a cherry pit. And it isn’t simply stuffed in. It is folded in. If folded one way, the cell becomes a skin cell. If another way, a liver cell, and so forth. To write out the information in one cell would take three hundred volumes, each volume five hundred pages thick. The human body contains enough DNA that if it were stretched out, it would circle the sun 260 times.

The body uses energy efficiently. If an average adult rides a bike for one hour at ten miles per hour, it uses the amount of energy contained in three ounces of carbohydrate. If a car were this efficient with gasoline, it would get nine hundred miles to the gallon.1

I don’t know about you, but I find those scientific details about the human body an affirmation of God’s knowledge, creativity and love towards us. I cannot see or believe how these details all happened into existence by pure chance or accident. This is the handiwork of God the Creator of heaven and earth, and you and me. This scientific knowledge does not lead me away from God and his ability to create. Rather, it draws me closer to God and makes me more in awe of it all. I, like the psalmist am amazed, astounded, astonished at how great this Creator-God of ours is. If God went into such scientific detail to weave together my body, then I, like the psalmist, cannot help but bow in wonder and worship God with reverential awe, and say: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” We are truly blessed by God from the beginning of our existence on. Amen.

1 Cited from: Craig Brian Larson & Drew Zahn, Editors, Perfect Illustrations For Every Topic And Occasion (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2002), pp. 135-136.

First in a series on preaching

To be continued…

First in a series on preaching

WARNING: This is a post primarily for preachers. Readers who are not preachers most likely shall be bored beyond belief, because this is “shop-talk” about the art and craft of preaching.

Every once in a while, we preachers take a refresher course or workshop or read a book on preaching. In the old days, when I was in seminary, homiletics courses often got assigned to the more flexible professors who were willing to teach it, even though the field of homiletics was not their specialty. Although my Profs didn’t specialize in homiletics, nonetheless I am grateful to them for what they taught me in my homiletics courses. We had two professors in particular who were excellent preachers. Nowadays, professors do specialize in homiletics and the field has gained more respect in seminaries. Along with this, the field itself has evolved over the years.


One of the still fashionable methods of preaching is the narrative or story sermon—sometimes also described as the inductive rather than deductive sermon. Inductive preaching begins with the particular and moves to the general; whereas deductive preaching begins with the general and moves to the particular. According to homiletics specialists like Dr Fred Craddock—if I’ve understood him correctly—the narrative sermon makes preaching as much an event engaging both preacher and listeners as it is a focus on the content of the sermon.

Right now I’m reading a book that I likely should have read a couple decades ago, when it came out in the late 1980s; Homiletic: Moves and Structures by Professor David Buttrick—better late than never, I guess. This work is, among other things, an attempt to build a new homiletic from scratch on up. I’m not convinced Buttrick accomplished that—however; there is much to be learned from this volume. Buttrick presents here a phenomenology of language, wherein he studies how sermons work or form in the consciousness of a congregation. Every preacher knows that oral language is different than written language. Buttrick insists that this principle is absolutely crucial in preparing and preaching meaningful sermons. Therefore, he is full of advice on the dos and don’ts of what he calls language moves and structures in the sermon. A move is a single idea developed in the sermon consisting of a) a beginning, b) the main body of the idea, and c) a conclusion of the idea. Buttrick thinks there should be five to six moves in a sermon. The structure of a sermon concentrates on how the moves fit into and serve the whole sermon. Here then are some words of advice from Buttrick on what to avoid in preaching, which he claims are based on research, yet I find that he is short on citing the sources of his research. I’m not necessarily endorsing all of Buttrick’s don’ts here. For example, the use of very is more common in everyday conversations among people I encounter than Buttrick gives credit for.

 AVOID beginning sentences with words like: this, these, those, that, one.

Use it at beginning of a sentence only when immediately following a sentence with a firm noun, never have 2 or more it sentences in sequence. All of these result in instant erasure of consciousness.

Avoid intensifiers like very, really, just, indeed. Written they work to add emphasis, but not orally.

Avoid delaying words or phrases like: actually, we can see…, we can see, however, that…, it is clear that…, it is evident that…Such words and phrases work in written scholarly works, but not in oral sermons.

Sentences beginning with numbers like: first, let us…, in the third place, we can…, will delete from consciousness.

Thus and therefore are seldom used in ordinary conversation, so should be avoided in sermons. As should other words not used in ordinary language.

Do not over use syntactical rhythms like: repetition, doublets, and triadic clauses. Unless disciplined, they can sound through an entire sermon, so that every different idea will be cadenced in the same way. Thus, for example, sin will sound the same as grace; Christ will sound the same as evil.


New Year thoughts in different directions

New Year thoughts in different directions

The arrival of another new year brings with it many open doors of opportunity. The old adage, when you’re so far down, there’s only one way to go, up, may well describe the present state of the world.


On the international scene, Christmas and New Year’s headlines focussed on the conflict in the Middle East, the breaking of the six month truce between Israel and Hamas, and the bombings of Hamas military targets by Israeli planes. The psalmist’s age old lament-question, “How long, O LORD,” is as applicable as ever. The issues, of course, are as old as the days of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael. Questions, criticisms, and advice are legion—however, solutions are still as enigmatic as ever. Fundamentalist and evangelical preachers with all of their eschatological scenarios are a dime a dozen. A Bruce Cockburn line comes to mind: “Everyone wants justice done on somebody else.” Or maybe a little more hope in a Leonard Cohen line: “Ring the bells that still can ring forget your perfect offering there’s a crack in everything that’s how the light gets in.” Maybe we all need to pray for more cracks and ring more bells. What is the international community—including the so-called moderate Muslim nations—doing about the escalating anti-Semitic rhetoric and the Holocaust denial conference of Iran’s Prime Minister? Remember, the Nazi movement also started with rhetoric and escalated into anti-Semitic political policies, which in turn, resulted in the Holocaust. Why is the international community criticising Israel to no end, yet failing to act to declare suicide bombings a crime against humanity? Israel has a right to exist in peace with her neighbours. Do her neighbours accept or reject this right? My hope and prayer for 2009 is that the peace movement among Israelis and Palestinians shall flourish, and the press focus more on what they are doing to make a difference in everyday life for both peoples.


On the national scene, we had a bit of a political crisis, with the threat of a coalition between the NDPs and Liberals, and the BQ promising their support. Most Canadians may not have voted Prime Minister Harper into parliament—since the voter turnout was rather pathetic!—yet, I think the majority of Canadians would consider such a coalition with a separatist party holding the balance of power rather dangerous. I empathize with the Governor General; she had a difficult decision to make; however I think she made the best one, considering the alternatives. Our M.P.s in Ottawa from all parties need to stop playing destructive political partisan games and consider the overall well-being of the nation—that’s what Canadians gave them a mandate to do, to govern responsibly in a minority situation by working together regardless of their political ideologies. The growing—statistics may not support this—violence, or at the least media coverage, is a concern for every Canadian. What are the circumstances and other factors that draw people into gangs and drugs? Do we need to be more proactive? How can we as a society meet the needs of people in order that they would not turn to gangs, violence and drugs? We all need to struggle with questions like this and work together for a more peaceful society. Rather than signs of despair, these are doors of opportunities, for where there is life there is hope and vice versa. Happy New Year and God bless us one and all!